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HomeBlogCoronavirus: Why Canada Must Recalibrate its Foreign Aid Policy

Coronavirus: Why Canada Must Recalibrate its Foreign Aid Policy

The pandemic has demonstrated that in our interconnected world order, we cannot protect the Canadian mainland without projecting our reach abroad.

By Pouyan Kimiayjan

The Trump administration has officially begun to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO), creating a budget vacuum that will limit the organization’s ability to help impacted countries fight COVID-19. Meanwhile, the pandemic has demonstrated that in our interconnected world order, we cannot protect the Canadian mainland without projecting our reach abroad. While closing borders can be a short-term solution, the Canadian economy will inevitably open its doors to cross-border travel and international tourism, thus making our citizens vulnerable to the ongoing pandemic and other potential viruses. And once a vaccine is produced, its distribution will not be immediate. The global economy is in a recessionary period and developing countries have been hit the hardest. This environment will most likely translate to higher refugee numbers and thus a matter of health security for Canada. In this light, Canada must increase its cooperation with multilateral institutions, recalibrate its foreign aid efforts, and assist the most vulnerable countries. 

Thus far, the pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to developing countries. Limited testing capacity, poor health infrastructures, and weak social security programs have exasperated the crisis. In low-income countries, social distancing carries a high cost: vulnerable members of society have low food stocks, small savings, and are dependent on casual labour. Under these conditions, working from home is not an option. And once unemployed, many will then suffer from poor nutrition and hunger arising from economic isolation. Meanwhile, a number of developing countries, including India, Mexico, and the Philippines, are losing billions of dollars as their overseas migrant workers are becoming unemployed in record numbers. Just last year, tens of millions of migrant workers working overseas sent a staggering $554 billion back to their home nations.

In Western Asia, cash-strapped governments are unable to financially accommodate their vulnerable populations. In sanctions-hit Iran, the government couldn’t afford to impose a nation-wide lockdown, while also fearing a potential rise in unemployment numbers. Now, a second-wave of COVID-19 cases has emerged in the country, with the government still financially unable to impose a quarantine and resorting to making face masks mandatory for the general public. In war-torn Syria, the country’s limited testing capacity has only recorded 372 cases, and refugee camps across the world are also fearing a surge in coronavirus cases. 

To help the most vulnerable nations, Canada needs to significantly improve its foreign aid track record. In 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) protested that as a share of gross national income, the federal government’s spending on international development was still below where it was under the Harper government. Not only the Trudeau government has failed to outspend the Harper government on foreign aid, Canada also ranks lower than its European counterparts. Recently, Canada lost its bid to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council, failing to win against Ireland and Norway. The two countries have increased foreign aid spending in recent years, while Canada’s aid spending has remained stagnant. This poor track-record is unjustifiable given that Canada’s economy is more than four times larger than Ireland and Norway. 

Fortunately, the Trudeau government has recently pledged $300 million to address humanitarian concerns of COVID-19 abroad. This contribution includes $120 million toward the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, recently created by the World Health Organization, the European Commission, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the French government, aimed at ensuring equitable access to medical treatments. The contribution also includes $180 million to address the developmental and humanitarian ramifications of the pandemic. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the government has channeled much of its foreign aid through international organizations. This effort is highly welcome, particularly as the United States has failed to take the lead on the global stage. Canada must stay on course and build on this effort. 

On the other hand, Canada must recalibrate its foreign aid agenda and prioritize fighting COVID-19, until a vaccine is produced and distributed in adequate numbers across the world. We can begin targeting the most-impacted countries, help strengthen their health infrastructure and keep their economies afloat. Foreign aid contributions are not fixed and can change on an annual basis. For example, compared to 2018, our foreign aid to Syria increased by 21%, while assistance levels to Afghanistan decreased by -22% in 2019. Henceforth, in the next upcoming year, we can temporarily divert our funding away from countries that have managed to flatten the curve, and instead focus on countries with low testing capacity, surging cases, and ones that have suffered the most economically. 

The recent United Nations Security Council vote must serve as a reminder that the Trudeau government has so far failed to improve its global image as a proactive middle power. The negative implications of a global economic turndown and the resurgence of a second wave, originating from a foreign source, are serious risks to our national security. We can increase our international aid contributions and reform our foreign aid program, an approach that will be mutually advantageous to Canada’s national interest as well as its global standing.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor